Guest Column Vol. VIII, No. 6

Behind the Yellow Fence

by Michael Christensen


Anna May

It had rained all night and our large equipment trucks carrying the tent, poles, stakes, the cookhouse, bleachers, forklifts and various Bobcats, (stocky, mechanically-muscular, all purpose front end loaders) transformed the grass lot in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx into a swamp; my truck and trailer were stuck in the mud. The elephant trainer, Bill Woodcock, quickly harnessed his lead elephant, looped one end of a heavy chain around my front bumper and attached the other to the large metal ring on the rear of the elephant’s straps. Then, he shouted the familiar command, “Move up, Anna May!” Unfortunately, he forgot the command, “Take it out of Park, Michael!” The elephant heaved ho. My ¾ ton diesel Suburban lurched forward and the front bumper crimped, not seriously, but certainly enough to warrant a trip to the local body shop.

The owner inspected my damaged bumper and said, “Sure, we can fix that. No problem. How’d it happen?” I explained. When I finished, he didn’t say anything; he stared at me and blinked a couple of times. Then, “Stay right here. Don’t move.” For the next few minutes he shuttered the entire shop, gathered the workers around me, including the cashier: “Now, explain how that bumper got bent again.”

No nonsense, Buckles (Bill) Woodcock is a take-me-as-you-see-me kind of fellow. I guess it’s good to be that way when you train elephants. Bill, his wife Barbara and The Woodcock Performing Elephants are quite well known in circus circles, be it the one, two or 3-ring variety. However, the real star wasn’t Bill. It was that lead elephant who extracted me from the muck that night, Anna May, a beautiful eight thousand pound female Asian elephant whose diet included one hundred pounds of hay, fifty pounds of grain and assorted produce daily. Anna May was so intelligent, I’m sure she would have scored into the 90th percentile of any college entrance exam, a star. I had the pleasure and the privilege of working with all of the Woodcocks, Bill, Barbara, Ben, Shannon and Delilah for several seasons under our Big Top.

Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center is a cement plaza. During one season, Bill Woodcock presented three elephants, Anna May, Peggy and Baby Ned, in a show-stopping number that included several acrobats. The act opened with all three elephants charging into the ring. The first time they rehearsed at Lincoln Center, the cement floor of the park heaved up and down under the combined weight and momentum. This would not be a concern except for the fact that the floor of the plaza is also the roof of the Lincoln Center parking garage. We imagined a well-dressed couple returning from the Metropolitan Opera to discover three elephants on top of their black Mercedes. Buckles never ran them in again; they walked.


A Little Known Fact About Elephants

We never enjoyed the comfort of a production headquarters until the late Alan B. Slifka, an investor, philanthropist and our founding chairperson, led a capital campaign to secure a permanent home for the Big Apple Circus. In 1995, on 30 woodsy acres 70 miles north from Gotham, in a former wire-extruding factory, we opened the Slifka Family Creative Center in Walden, New York. A cavernous, 50,000 square foot industrial warehouse provided ample room for our costume shop, props, tent support structure, trucks, storage, administrative offices, music/dance studio and two full-size practice rings. Outside, we constructed horse stables, established electricity and water hookups to accommodate 40 trailers and still had room for the Big Top, in which we attached aerial rigging, hung lights and sound equipment, trained horses, erected the set and conducted full-scale rehearsals. In short, everything necessary to mount a world-class one-ring circus was now available–we had no excuses. Over time, local residents accepted the Big Apple Circus as a novel addition to their sleepy little town of 6,500. Scott Hecht, a Walden tow truck operator who occasionally assisted our vehicles in distress, told a New York Times reporter: ”You know how some people have dogs in their backyards? Well, these people have elephants.”

As a gesture of gratitude, we would designate one day during our rehearsal period as Walden Day and invite the entire town to visit, tour the facility and if the timing synched, see one of the rehearsals. All of the administrators from the New York office also joined the festivities. On one of these occasions, our CFO at the time, Peter, had noticed that Buckles enclosed the elephant area with a single band of orange tape.

“Michael, I noticed that there is only a thin piece of orange tape that is keeping those elephants penned up.” Peter was obviously unaware that the tape was electrified.

“You know, Peter, a lot of folks don’t know this but elephants are deathly afraid of the color orange. They won’t go near it.”


Later in the day as I was passing Buckle’s trailer en route to the cookhouse, I heard Peter’s voice over a megaphone. He was leading a group of Walden citizens on a tour of the lot. “You will notice that the only thing between us and the elephants is that thin piece of orange tape. Elephants are deathly afraid of the color orange.” Fortunately, no one was electrocuted. Well, as far as I know


Butterflies in the Circus

Mr. Stubs tiptoes to one of the tent masts. He carries a butterfly net and a sandwich. He raises the sandwich and emits a high-pitched squeak. Mr. Paul strides across the ring and gently taps him on the shoulder. “Uh, excuse me, Mr. Stubs. What are you doing?”

Mr. Stubs whispers, “There is a butterfly right up there behind one of the lights, Mr. Paul, and I am luring it down.”

Pointing to the sandwich, Mr. Paul asks, “And what is that?”

“It’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, sir. Butterflies love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

“They do?”

“Oh yes, sir. They love ‘em. Can’t get enough of ‘em.”

“I hate to disappoint you, Mr. Stubs, but there are no butterflies in the circus.”

“Oh, yes there are, sir. Right there. Right there behind that light.”

“No, Mr. Stubs. There are no butterflies in the circus.”

“Oh, sir…”

“No, Mr. Stubs. There are no butterflies in the circus!” Mr. Paul leaves. Mr. Stubs shuffles to the center of the ring, pauses for a moment looking at the audience, then lies down and falls asleep.

Winged Russian acrobats fly into the ring and circle the sleeping Mr. Stubs and then flitter away. Marie Pierre Bénac, the French trapeze artist enters; she too has sprouted butterfly wings, as has Grandma. Everyone in the circus has become butterflies. Finally, adorned with wings that would awe the most royal Monarch, Anna May appears. Mr. Stubs awakens. Anna May waits behind him and for a moment he doesn’t see her. He slowly turns and beholds his Butterfly. He glances at his net, then to Anna May and again to the net. He drops it and hugs Anna May. Mr. Stubs offers her the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which she grasps with her trunk and eats. She lowers her head and elevates her left front foot, inviting Mr. Stubs to climb aboard. Mr. Stubs steps onto her leg and Anna May lifts him. He scrambles onto her back and together, they fly into the Big Apple Circus sunset.

Anna May starring with the Big Apple Circus. Photo by Paul Gutheil

Farewell, Anna May

Anna May retired from the Big Apple Circus in 1999 with her farewell performance in Shelburne, Vermont. I had discontinued touring in 1989 but for this special occasion, I wore full costume and makeup and at the end of the show, once again, Mr. Stubs stood in the ring beside his partner, Mr. Paul. Bill Woodcock and Anna May joined us. We shared how grateful we were to have worked with them for so long, what magic they had brought to The Big Apple Circus for so many years. I presented Anna May with her beloved peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Red velvet curtains opened. Bill and Anna May turned and exited the ring for the last time. The ringmaster and the hobo waved goodbye to their star elephant and her trainer. Red velvet curtains closed. It was the end of an era; the Big Apple Circus never presented elephants in the ring again.


The Garden Circus

Trumpet Flowers blast a fanfare as the ringmaster strides through rose-petal curtains to welcome his audience. “Ladieeeeees and Geraniums, hold your Horse Radishes; here come the Elephant Amaranths!” Purple trunks extended high in salute, six Elephant Amaranths thunder into the ring. Earth quakes. Sawdust explodes as mammoth leaves churn the ground. They complete two circles, stop, pirouette, then…vanish.

Dust settles as the host appears on the bandstand to introduce the next act. “Ah,” he croons. “ Be careful. These colorful contortionists seduce. They have been known to entwine themselves around gardeners’ hearts. From the mysterious orient, please welcome, Gladys Clematis and her Flowering Sisters”

Lights fade to black and in the darkness symphonic sounds of Fiddlehead Ferns soften the air.  Full-Moon Flowers cast their silvery glow onto a large oval platform in the middle of the ring. Small, green leaves carpet its top and a thin, bare-limbed tree extends upwards from its center. The leaves stir and begin wrapping themselves around the tree trunk, then the limbs. They climb, twist, curl and catch.  In seconds, they transform the naked branches into a living sculpture. Silence. The entire tree exhales color, slow motion fireworks–white, cream, light pink, rust, blue, purple, cherry red, scarlet blossoms.

Staccato rhythms of Drumstick Alliums and Bugle Plants assault the tent. Inside the ring, outside the ring, under the bleachers, along the sidewalls, atop the band stand, around the iron tent masts, in the aisles, on the spotlight platforms, the trapeze safety net, the high tight-wire, the low slack-wire, everywhere-flowers: Lion’s Mane Sunflowers, Tiger Lillies, Leopard’s Bane, Bear Breeches, Monkey, Zebra and Snake grasses, too many to count, too many to name and too many to tame; the flowers are wild and they are everywhere.

Sasha awoke. “Mother! Mother! Come quick! I had the most beautiful dream. Oh, my gosh! Our garden is a circus. It really is. Really. There are elephants and tigers and Gladys Clematis is there. Our garden is a circus. Can I go back to sleep?”

“A garden circus? Really? Tell me everything, Sweetheart; I want to hear all about it.”